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Talking Point
2002 Issue 4
In this issue:

President’s end of year reports 2002
MCS motion
Awareness Day
Badge Day
Support Groups

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity motion to South Australian Upper House

By Sandra Kanck
Democrats Deputy Parliamentary Leader (SA)
Member of the Legislative Council

November 13, 2002


The Hon. SANDRA KANCK: I move:

  1. That a select committee be appointed to inquire into and report on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, with particular regard to:

    (a) which chemicals or chemical compounds are responsible for the majority of symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and how exposure to them can be minimised;

    (b) the effect of chemical exposure on human fertility;

    (c) the comparative status in other countries of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a diagnosed medical condition;

    (d) best practice guidelines in Australia and overseas for the handling of chemicals to reduce chemical exposure;

    (e) current chemical usage practices by local government and state government departments and changes that could be made to reduce chemical exposure to both workers and the public; and

    (f) the ways in which South Australians with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity might more effectively access sources of support through government agencies.
  2. That standing order 389 be so far suspended as to enable the chairperson of the committee to have a deliberative vote only.
  3. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it thinks fit, of any evidence presented to the committee prior to such evidence being reported to the council.
  4. That standing order 396 be suspended to enable strangers to be admitted when the select committee is examining witnesses unless the committee otherwise resolves, but they shall be excluded when the committee is deliberating.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or MCS, is, in Australia at least, a mostly unrecognised illness, but its incidence is increasing, and it could be that we are on the edge of an epidemic of chemically induced illness in this country. The World Health Organisation acknowledges the existence of MCS and, as a nation, Germany recognises it. Many US states do, and consequently they have strict pesticide legislation. In California, where the Californian Medical Association recognises it, 6 per cent of the citizens of that state are known to have experienced MCS, and it is recognised as a disability in at least 10 Canadian jurisdictions.

I give credit to the former health minister, Dean Brown, who acknowledged in correspondence with Mr Peter Evans of the South Australian Task Force on Chemical Sensitivity that MCS is ‘emerging as an important environmental health matter that has national implications.’ He is right. Our society is experiencing unprecedented rates of auto-immune diseases, infertility, cancer and childhood asthma. Most of us personally know someone who is suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, ADHD or fibromyalgia syndrome. Many of us know people who have allergies and intolerances to various foods and substances.

Exposure to chemical toxicity can result in symptoms ranging from headaches, poor concentration, diarrhoea, muscle and joint pain, dizziness and irregular heartbeats, through to life-threatening conditions such as auto-immunity. Once acquired, it takes very little exposure to any other chemical to tip those sufferers back into illness. More and more I find people who cannot tolerate the smell of someone’s perfume – something which most people would regard as a pleasant smell. I am sure members recall media stories in the 1980s about individuals who were described as having become allergic to the 20th century. While those individual stories were told, many others were not because for the most part those who suffer from MCS are often confined to their homes. They cannot go outside without being hit by one or more of the products to which they are sensitive.

The World Health Organisation has recognised MCS as a growing problem and a serious environmental concern, yet it does not have any status in the Australian medical community. The consequence of this lack of recognition is that the sufferers of MCS are sometimes treated by their GPs as malingerers. Without formal recognition of the condition, it is hard for the sufferers to argue their need to be given the supports to which others with a disability are entitled. It must be tough for them to know that they have a genuine physical affliction and to be treated as if it is something which they are imagining.

What causes MCS? The Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Association specifically sheets home the blame to some building products, pesticides, paints, cleaning products, carpets, plastics and glues, to which I would add substances such as tobacco and fumes from car exhausts. With the number of complex chemicals being released into the environment, problems emerge from the unintended interactions between different substances in the atmosphere. For instance, nitrogen oxide from car exhausts reacts with sunlight to form ozone which is a lifesaver in the upper atmosphere but poisonous when breathed in at ground level; it can impact on the immune system and, in some cases, lead to cancer.

The Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Association argues that, because of the health impacts, what is regarded by the authorities as acceptable limits of toxins in these very commonplace substances and the acceptable exposure limits to people handling them, may no longer be acceptable and must be reviewed. The National Registration Authority sets the standards for chemical additives in food, for instance, and the states themselves do not undertake any investigation as to what are appropriate levels. One has to ask about the need for us to use some of the chemicals we use and the problems that can arise from accidental exposure.

Tobacco is a product that we do not need-although of course some people are addicted to it-and accidental exposure in the form of side stream smoke can have quite disastrous impacts on people. Some members of this place may be aware of a campaigner against tobacco, a former member of the Australian Democrats, Sue Meeuwissen. Sue had no sense of smell, but she was highly allergic to side stream smoke from tobacco. When she was being treated for her condition in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, she went outside and inhaled cigarette smoke from smokers outside the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. That had such a significant impact on her health that it was all downhill from there and, ultimately, it led to her death.

Firefighters are a group in our society who are often exposed to some of these substances without being aware of it, and it can permanently alter their lives. I remember about a decade ago, when I was working for Senator John Coulter, being contacted by the wife of a firefighter who had been exposed to a product called toluene diisocyanate, more commonly known as TDI. In that case the body becomes allergic to itself and attacks itself, and this firefighter had unfortunately, in fighting a fire, been exposed to TDI. Clearly, he had little chance of any sort of life in the long term. TDI is imported into South Australia and is used by just a few manufacturers in this state. In my opinion, this is material is so dangerous that it should have regulations in place for its transport and storage, and those regulations ought to be as tight as any that we have in place for radioactive materials, so much so that I believe that local government authorities should be aware of the route and time of travel of this substance when it is moved from one place to another. One has to question why we need to manufacture products that require the introduction of such materials. Surely we can do away with products that require them.

A committee that can look at the toxic nature of some of these materials will have the opportunity to ask questions of this nature. As this is early days in Australia, the committee will most likely not find all the answers it needs but certainly, throughout the world, when we have become aware of the harmful nature of some chemicals, their use has eventually been restricted, thus showing that we can do without them. When we became aware of the impact of DDT we were able to find some less noxious alternatives. When we became aware of the impact of the ozone hole in our upper atmosphere we were able to find acceptable alternatives to CFCs which were creating that hole.

Surely we need to ask questions about new chemicals before they enter the market; before they can do such catastrophic damage. There are almost always gentler alternatives. For instance, some local government authorities in New South Wales are spraying kerbside weeds with steam rather than herbicides. There is increasing evidence that exposure to particular types of chemicals is leading to decreased fertility. A Danish study published in 1992 found that around the world the average male sperm count had dropped by 50 per cent in the short period of just five decades, from 1940 to 1990. Whereas back in 1940 only six per cent of men had sperm counts classified as extremely low, in 1990 18 per cent of men were in that category. Subsequent studies in other countries have verified those results. The indicators –

The Hon. T.G. Cameron: It might be nature’s way of dealing with the population explosion.

The Hon. SANDRA KANCK: I guess that is one rather cynical way of dealing with it. The indicators are that organochlorines mimic oestrogens and disrupt normal hormonal patterns. They exist, for instance, in plastics and detergents which are very common substances that we all use. The finger points at these chemicals as playing a major role in declining fertility and increased prostate cancer in men. It may be that they are responsible for increased levels of endometriosis and breast cancer in women. Exposure to such chemicals is known to disrupt thyroid production with the potential to impact in utero the children of women who have been exposed. It is known that women who experience low thyroid levels in pregnancy are more likely to produce children who are hyperactive. In nature, the impact of these dioxin-like products is producing infertility, miscarriage and birth defects. The warnings for the human species must be very loud.

We know from some catastrophic events around the world that PCB and dioxin exposure lead to low thyroid levels for mothers of unborn children and to mental retardation of those children. Exposure to these same chemicals at supposedly safe levels leads to slightly lower thyroid levels, and this may be responsible for behavioural disorders and learning disabilities in children.

I know that this goes further than the terms of reference that I am suggesting, but if we begin to tackle multiple chemical sensitivity as an issue we are likely to be tackling a range of health-related issues. At the heart of the problem is the powerful influence of chemical drug and tobacco companies. Unfortunately, ordinary people do not have the power to take on these companies, let alone have the wherewithal to question what is being pushed at them. Members might have seen the film Erin Brockovich a few years ago, which was based on the true story of one woman who took on one of the big chemical companies and won.

Unfortunately, such stories are few and far between. It is for sure that we will always know about the positive benefits of any new chemical coming onto the market because the PR machines of those companies will ensure that we do, and so often the media obediently complies with feel-good stories masquerading as news. The environment movement advocates the precautionary principle, which basically says that if we do not know all the possible impacts of a proposed practice or product we should not introduce it until we are certain that it will be safe. We must adopt such a principle in relation to our health.

Our governments seem to prefer intervention after the event rather than prevention. They wait until a problem emerges before doing anything about it when they could have prevented it in the first place. The cost of intervening may be much higher than any costs associated with initial prevention of the problem, but the multinational chemical companies have such massive influence and small community groups have so little voice. We should not wait until the damage has occurred before taking any action. The chemical company must always prove that it is safe: it must never be turned the other way, with ordinary consumers expected to prove that a product is harmful.

The reverse onus of proof is already the case with pharmaceuticals and it should be extended to other types of chemicals because, whether or not we like it, we are taking these chemicals into our bodies through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. We should expect hostility from chemical companies-they have a lot to lose: profits and the potential for legal liability. A task force was established in New Mexico to look at multiple chemical sensitivities. That task force reported in January last year-almost two years ago. In an article headed, ‘Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Under Siege’, Ann McCampbell, a medical doctor and chair of that committee, talked about the response of the industry to MCS. Dr McCampbell states:

To that end, the chemical manufacturing industry has launched an anti-MCS campaign designed to create the illusion of controversy about MCS and cast doubt on its existence. What has been said about the tobacco industry could easily apply to the chemical industry regarding MCS, that is, ‘the only diversity of opinion comes from the authors with. . . industry affiliations.’

It is a credit to the chemical industry’s public relations efforts that we frequently hear that multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) is ‘controversial’ or find journalists who feel obligated to report ‘both sides’ of the MCS story, or attempt to give equal weight to those who say MCS exists and those who say it does not. But this is very misleading, since there are not two legitimate views of MCS. Rather, there is a serious, chronic, and often disabling illness that is under attack by the chemical industry.

The manufacturers of pesticides, carpets, perfumes, and other products associated with the cause or exacerbation of chemical sensitivities adamantly want MCS to go away. Even though a significant and growing portion of the population report being chemically sensitive, chemical manufacturers appear to think that if they can just beat on the illness long enough, it will disappear. To that end, they have launched a multi-pronged attack on MCS that consists of labelling sufferers as ‘neurotic’ and ‘lazy’, doctors who help them as ‘quacks’, scientific studies which support MCS as ‘flawed’, calls for more research as ‘unnecessary’, laboratory tests that document physiologic damage in people with MCS as ‘unreliable’, government assistance programs helping those with MCS ‘abused’ and anyone sympathetic to people with MCS as ‘cruel’ for reinforcing patients’ ‘beliefs’ that they are sick. They have also been influential in blocking the admission of MCS testimony in lawsuits through their apparent influence on judges.

Like the tobacco industry, the chemical industry often uses non-profit front groups with pleasant sounding names, neutral-appearing third party spokespeople, and science-for-hire studies to try to convince others of the safety of their products. This helps promote the appearance of scientific objectivity, hide the biased and bottom-line driven agenda of the chemical industry, and create the illusion of scientific ‘controversy’ regarding MCS. But whether anti-MCS statements are made by doctors, researchers, reporters, pest control operators, private organisations or government officials, make no mistake about it-the anti-MCS movement is driven by chemical manufacturers. This is the real story of MCS.

As I say, we need to expect that the chemical industry will probably lead any attacks against this committee. What needs to be done to deal with MCS? Obviously we need to be more assiduous and more wide ranging with data collection so that we can start to make the connections between outbreaks of MCS and exposure to chemicals. Clearly a lot more research needs to be done.

There are issues that need to be investigated about the appropriate labelling of farm chemicals. In the case of some of the agricultural chemicals being used by some of the farmers producing our fruit and vegetables, many of whom speak English as a second language, the labelling would appear to be inadequate. In the book, Our Stolen Future, written by Colborn, Dumanoski and Myers, the authors say:

We design new technologies at a dizzying pace and deploy them on an unprecedented scale around the world long before we can begin to fathom their possible impact on the global system or ourselves. As we race toward the future, we must never forget the fundamental reality of our situation: we are flying blind. We are all guinea pigs and, to make matters worse, we have no controls to help us understand what these chemicals are doing.

From my perspective and from the perspective of many of the people who suffer from MCS or fertility problems, the impact of chemical exposure is a growing public health problem. It must be treated seriously. The investigation that I propose will begin the process of giving MCS the recognition that it should have in this state. I hope that it will also result in recommendations that will place pressure on government authorities to look twice at some of the practices we tolerate that we ought not to tolerate.


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